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Good News: SEC Allows Electronic Signatures in Authentication Documents

The SEC recently approved amendments to Rule 302(b) of Regulation S-T, which governs the signing of “authentication documents” relating to typewritten signatures included in documents that are filed with the SEC electronically via EDGAR.  Current Rule 302(b) requires that, prior to or at the time of such a filing, each signatory manually sign a signature page (or other document) “authenticating, acknowledging or otherwise adopting his or her signature that appears in typed form within the electronic filing.”  Rule 302(b), as amended, will for the first time allow a signatory to use an electronic signature (as an alternative to a manual signature) on any such authentication document, provided certain requirements are met, as described below.

Effective Date.  The amendments will become effective upon publication in the Federal Register.  Following approval of the amendments, however, the SEC staff issued a statement indicating that, in light of COVID-19 concerns, early reliance on and compliance with amended Rule 302(b) is permitted.

Attestation Document (New).  Before using an electronic signature in an authentication document for the first time, a signatory will be required to manually sign a document attesting that he or she agrees that the use of an electronic signature in any authentication document will be the legal equivalent of such individual’s manual signature.

Electronic Signature Procedures.  In connection with the amendments, the SEC updated the EDGAR Filer Manual to set out the procedures that are required to be followed before an electronic signature may be used in an authentication document.  The electronic signing

SEC Simplifies MD&A and Related Financial Disclosure Requirements

In yet another 3-2 vote, on November 19, 2020, the SEC adopted significant amendments to MD&A and related financial disclosures in order to streamline disclosures and move to a more “principles-based approach.”  Among other things, the amendments:

  • Eliminate Item 301 (Selected Financial Data);
  • Simplify Item 302(a) (Quarterly Tabular Disclosure); and
  • Simplify Item 303 (MD&A)

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments that can be found here.

Modernizing Regulation S-K Amendments – Transitional FAQs from the SEC

As covered in our blog post dated August 26, 2020, the SEC recently adopted amendments to Regulation S-K Items 101 (business description), 103 (legal proceedings), and 105 (risk factors) aimed at modernizing disclosure requirements.  The amended rules became effective on November 9, 2020.

The SEC Staff (the “Staff”) recently published three transitional FAQs addressing questions that have arisen regarding the amendments:

FAQ (1) – Applicability of Amended Items 101, 103 and 105 to Form S-3 Prospectus Supplements Filed on or after November 9, 2020.

  • The Staff confirmed that because Form S-3 requires only incorporation by reference – and not express disclosure – under Items 101 and 103, a registrant is not required to comply with amended Items 101 and 103 when, on or after November 9, 2020, it files a prospectus supplement to a Form S-3 registration statement that became effective prior to November 9, 2020. The registrant also is not required to amend the Form 10-K that is incorporated by reference into the Form S-3 to comply with amended Items 101 and 103.
  • The Staff noted that because Form S-3 requires that Item 105 disclosure be expressly included (i.e., the disclosure cannot be incorporated by reference), Securities Act Rule 401(a) would ordinarily require that the prospectus supplement comply with amended Item 105. The Staff indicated that it will not object, however, if the prospectus supplement is filed without amending the Form S-3 to comply with amended Item 105.  The registrant will, however, be required to comply with amended

New SEC Enforcement Priorities Likely Under Biden Administration

November 18, 2020

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BCLP Washington Partner Ashley Ebersole was quoted Nov. 13 by Compliance Week regarding possible new enforcement priorities at the Securities and Exchange Commission under a Biden administration. Much will hinge on selection of a new SEC chairman, as current Chairman Jay Clayton has announced his intent to step down at year end before his term officially is scheduled to end in June 2021. “Selection of the new SEC chair, whether from inside the agency or outside, will signal much in terms of the likely approach,” said Ebersole, a former SEC attorney. He also noted that compliance officers “should be prepared for a continued SEC enforcement focus on pursuing fraud involving Main Street investors, but also a likely redoubling of efforts to sanction conduct by financial institutions.”

Glass Lewis’ 2020 Proxy Season Review: Boards Become Increasingly Younger

Glass Lewis (“GL”) recently issued its 2020 Proxy Season Review (U.S.) (the “Report”) covering the U.S. 2020 Proxy Season (i.e., January 1, 2020 through June 30, 2020).  GL reported on certain 2020 shareholder voting trends and results, as well as certain of GL’s voting recommendations.  The statistics and information included below (1) cover only a portion of the Report and (2) refer to the U.S. 2020 Proxy Season and to the U.S. companies covered by GL, unless otherwise indicated.

Governance and Disclosure

  • Boards are becoming increasingly younger; for example, for companies in the Russell 3000 Index (the “Russell 3000”), (1) the average age for new director nominees decreased to 54.8 years from 55.9 and 57.7 years in 2019 and 2018, respectively, and (2) the average age of all directors decreased to 61.2 years from 61.8 and 63.5 years in 2019 and 2018, respectively;
  • For Russell 3000 companies, the average tenure of men on boards decreased slightly to 12.4 years from 12.9 years in 2019, while the average tenure of women on such boards increased more significantly to 7.2 years from 6.0 years in 2019;
  • Approximately 13.2% of boards did not include women, which was reduced from 18.8% in 2019 and 26.2% in 2018;
  • The number of women in board leadership positions at Russell 3000 companies has increased each year during the past three years; however, women are more likely to serve as committee chairs rather than as board chairs, vice chairs or lead directors; men hold approximately 94.5% of chair

SEC Modernizes Auditor Independence Rules to Focus on Actual Threats to Objectivity

The Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) recently adopted final amendments to the auditor independence requirements set forth in Rule 2-01 of Regulation S-X.  The SEC stated that the final amendments were based on recurring fact patterns that the SEC staff has observed over the years in which certain relationships and services triggered technical independence rule violations without necessarily impairing an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality.  These relationships either triggered non-substantive rule breaches or required potentially time-consuming audit committee review of non-substantive matters, thereby diverting time, attention, and other resources of audit clients, auditors, and audit committees from other investor protection efforts.

In the adopting release, the SEC stated that the amendments “…maintain the bedrock principle that auditors must be independent in fact and in appearance while…more effectively focusing the independence analysis on those relationships or services that are more likely to threaten an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality.”  The SEC anticipates that Rule 2-01, as amended, will make the auditor independence rules easier to apply and appropriately limit the situations in which auditors are not deemed to be independent.

The amendments include, among others:

  • In connection with determining whether auditor independence exists in the context of initial public offerings, an amendment shortening the applicable look-back period to cover the immediately preceding fiscal year (rather than the period covered by the registration statement, which can be up to three years);
  • In connection with identifying relationships that may preclude a finding of auditor independence, an amendment providing that a sister entity

SEC Modernizes Framework for Exempt Offerings

In another 3-2 vote, on November 2, 2020 the SEC approved significant amendments to the framework for exempt offerings intended to harmonize and simplify the framework for exempt offerings under the Securities Act of 1933.  The amendments:

  • Simplified the “integration doctrine” that restricts the ability of issuers to move or switch from one exemption to another
  • Permit certain “demo day” and “test-the-waters” communications, and clarify other rules on communications
  • Increase the offering limits for certain offerings and individual investment
  • Harmonize certain disclosure and eligibility requirements and bad actor disqualifications

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments that can be found here.

2021 Annual Shareholder Meetings – Avoiding a Super Spreader Event

As COVID-19 rages on, companies are again flocking to virtual annual meetings for the 2021 proxy season, but with one important difference:  the luxury of time.  Many companies are already exploring retention of virtual annual meeting providers and alternatives for video and real-time Q&A, as well as drafting fulsome disclosure about meeting logistics in their proxy materials to address concerns raised by investors, the SEC and others with respect to some pitfalls during the 2020 proxy season.

Service Providers and Technology.  For 2021, an issuer will have additional time to select an appropriate provider of a virtual meeting platform.  The most widely used vendor for hosting virtual meetings is Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc., which reported that it hosted 1,494 virtual shareholder meetings during the first six months of 2020.  Other service providers, such as stock transfer agents, also provide such services.  A few companies have even arranged to facilitate the virtual component of an annual meeting via Zoom.

In 2020, some companies were caught off-guard by technology glitches.  For 2021, issuers should be in a position to anticipate technology issues and to put contingency plans in place to address them.  Issuers can follow best practices for virtual meetings by, for example, putting in place technical support lines for the duration of their meetings.

Format and Rules of Conduct (including Q&A).  Companies need to decide whether a meeting will be virtual-only, physical-only or a hybrid.  For any virtual component, they need to decide whether the access will be

ISS releases FAQs addressing COVID-related compensation actions

ISS recently published FAQ guidance addressing how it will approach COVID-related pay decisions under its pay-for-performance qualitative evaluation.  The guidance reflects feedback from discussions with investors and its annual policy survey.

  • Temporary salary reductions have limited impact on ISS scoring unless incentive payout opportunities are also reduced, as base salaries typically represent a small portion of total pay.
  • Changes to bonus/annual incentive metrics, targets or measurement periods will be evaluated for reasonableness on a case-by-case basis in light of the justifications and rationale disclosed.  The guidance sets forth a non-exclusive list of factors to consider for disclosure.
    • Specified disclosure of board consideration of payout opportunities would also be needed where the reduced target falls below the prior year’s performance levels without commensurate reductions of payout opportunities.
  • Changes to in-progress long-term incentive awards will generally be viewed negatively, as they are intended to cover multiple years – particularly in the case of companies with poor quantitative pay-for-performance alignment.
  • Changes to 2020 long-term incentive awards may be viewed as reasonable, where clearly disclosed and modest. For example, switching to relative or qualitative metrics due to uncertainty in forecasts could be viewed as reasonable – but not shifts to predominantly time-vesting equity or short-term measurement periods.
  • Retention or one-time awards may be viewed as reasonable if (i) the rationale is clearly disclosed and furthers investor interests, (ii) reasonable in magnitude and represent an isolated practice, (iii) vesting conditions are strongly performance-based and properly linked to the underlying rationale,

Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

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Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

Authored by: Ashley Ebersole

On the heels of a nearly $50 million record whistleblower payout in June 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced on October 22 that it shattered that mark by awarding a whistleblower an extraordinary $114 million bounty. As described in the press release, the total included $52 million from the SEC, and a $62 million sum from “related actions by another [unspecified] agency.” The SEC’s Order further detailed that though the award arose from an action that was the subject of submissions from four would-be whistleblowers, the only payout was made to a whistleblower who (i) internally reported his or her concerns, (ii) provided information that caused the SEC and other agency to open investigations into the wrongdoing, (iii) provided “substantial and ongoing assistance” throughout the investigation that saved government time and resources, and (iv) suffered “serious personal and professional hardships” as a result of the whistleblowing activity. The SEC provided scant information on the target or substance of the underlying enforcement action, but the record award comes one month after the agency enacted amendments to its rules that were intended to “further incentivize whistleblowers” – something it would seem to be underscoring with windfall payments.

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